Hiking Yosemite's Pohono Trail

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For many, summer is synonymous with one place: Yosemite. The legendary valley has raised countless area families and friends in its ancient glacial cradle, inspiring millions of avid adventurers and casual hikers from here and elsewhere to visit year after year. In 2017, the valley enjoyed renewed exposure as a testament to both the power of Mother Nature and humankind alike when Alex Honnold climbed the 3,000-foot face of El Capitan sans rope.

While most of us are likely not quite as ambitious as Honnold, we nonetheless would love to explore the valley sometime this summer, but face permit problems and crowd woes.

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Thankfully, there’s the Pohono Trail. With not much luck needed, you can secure an advance or walk-up permit for this extraordinarily beautiful hike along the south rim as an overnight backpack or more leisurely multi-night trip. At 13-16 miles long (conflicting reports), it’s also totally doable as a big and strenuous day hike.

The Pohono Trail is a thru-hike beginning at either Glacier Point or Tunnel View parking lots; having a car at each end will make things easiest. Beginning at Glacier Point is almost entirely downhill, and for that reason, preferable to most, unless you love ascending several thousand feet in a day.


The trail begins with some of the most breathtaking views on the planet and simply doesn’t stop. After leaving behind the bustling Glacier Point viewpoint, you come to your own private peek of Yosemite Falls, just under a mile in, its thundering music playing loudly across the way. What a sound! Not much farther, you come to a Sentinel Dome juncture you absolutely must take. With 360-degree views of the park, views don’t get much better than this.

 


 

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After Taft Point, where slackliners balance dizzyingly thousands of feet above the valley floor, the number of day hikers plummets. The next two and a half miles go quietly through mossy forests, near-silent but for many beautiful birdsongs. It’s hard to believe you’re still in the same crowded national park. On this quiet stretch, you’ll come to your first camping option at Bridalveil Creek Bridge, a peaceful place along the banks of the water that spills into one of Yosemite’s most iconic falls.

But it’s Dewey Point, just two miles farther, that’s the real stunner. With a few spacious sites situated at one of the most spectacular views in a park full of them, it’s hard not to feel downright undeserving of such a sleep spot. Watch the sunrise, watch the sunset, and watch the headlamps glinting on El Capitan’s face. It’s a place to feel unparalleled joy and magic, a summer memory you’ll never forget.

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White Ledge–Hurricane Deck Loop

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Spring has certainly sprung in the San Rafael Wilderness. For the adventurous weekend warrior or the more leisurely multi-day traveler, the classic loop traveling from Manzana Narrows to White Ledge back down through Lost Valley is the perfect way to experience arguably some of the most beautiful terrain in all of California at its seasonal height. Clocking in at almost the length of a marathon, it’s not exactly the easiest or shortest of all traverses, but if you can spare the time, you will be immensely rewarded.

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The hike begins at Nira Campground. The first seven miles are a well-trodden route along the scenic Manzana River Valley. You will certainly see other people here on a spring weekend; on a late March trip, for example, all available sites were occupied from Fish Camp (2.7 miles) all the way to Manzana (6 miles). If you’re lucky, you will also see many local residents of the wilderness, like Arroyo toads, through whose home the trail bisects. Spring will bring flowers like the western peony, Indian paintbrush, yerba santa, and elegant clarkia. From Manzana, the trail zigzags up and then back down to meet a lush and narrowing portion of the creek. Manzana Narrows, the most spacious, prettiest, and usually most popular camp up to this point, features four sites set aside a small but dramatic set of rocky waterfalls with an inviting, frigid pool, plus a luxurious latrine sometimes occupied by, shall we say, impolite swarms of bees.

Beyond here, the terrain changes noticeably, as the Narrows give way to scenic views of the crest of White Ledge plateau and the mountainous rise of the San Rafaels. Beyond the river, the sun intensifies, and the fragrance of wildflowers, too. After half a mile from the campground, you come to a junction, where you have the option to head up to Big Cone Spruce or even further to McKinley Peak. Stay left and begin the switchbacks up almost 1,000 feet, underneath a sprawling curvature of sandstone.

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White Ledge is an amazing place, easily one of the most beautiful on all the Los Padres. A mystical feeling surrounds this miraculous maze of white rocks, ghost pines, and meadows made of Miocene sandstone millions and millions of years in the making. This is the eastern Hurricane Deck, where its sandstone skeleton is exposed in slanting, sloping, striated strips and shelves, surreal and even spooky. Gentle streams runs down the plateau, to the Manzana on one side all the way into the Sisquoc watershed on the other. An abundance of wildlife, quite musical in the night, make this their home. It is a special, sacred place; leave it cleaner than you found it.

There are two camps in White Ledge Canyon. The first, Happy Hunting Ground, at 10.7 miles from the trailhead, is a very nice little site right along the trail near a small bend in the stream, with lovely shelves of rock as your backdrop. Continue downward to White Ledge Camp at 12 miles from the trailhead, a paradisiacal nook near a creekside whirlpool underneath dramatic rock formations. At either camp, you will have ample opportunities to explore the sandstone further or relax by the creek.

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On your final day, you will hike back 13.2 miles to Nira Campground, with all but the final few miles almost completely absent of shade. The hike begins at the Hurricane Deck Trail turnoff adjacent White Ledge camp. The first 4.4 miles will likely be the least enjoyable of your journey, and certainly the brushiest. Expect chaparral to swat you in the face, slice you in the legs, and stab you in the thighs. Hurricane Deck is and will always be a challenge to traverse even on this, its easiest segment, and it is crucial and critical you know how to navigate. Fortunately, sweeping views of the Sierra Madre Mountains and hopefully a nice breeze make this leg more bearable.

At the Vulture Spring turnoff, views open up to unparalleled vistas of Hurricane Deck, Sulfur Spring Canyon, and San Rafael Mountains. There is no place quite like this stunning setting and no hike quite like descending through its many sandstone stripes. In spring, golden yarrow, owl’s clover, California prickly phlox, and tiny wooly sunflower illuminate your path. With a decline of just under 1,000 feet, this portion of the trail is often hard on the knees, so be forewarned.

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You go down past grassy potreros to see the rocky interior of Lost Valley, which looks dry and foreboding even in spring. Vulture Spring, about three miles from the Hurricane Deck trail turnoff, is the only reliable water after White Ledge, and it is usually more of a drip or trickle than a healthy flow, but it had a tiny pool in late March. Just after it, a precarious rockfall demands you use immense caution in crossing.

Landing at Twin Oaks, the last descent into Lower Lost Valley is always a dreamy one. The pines sway, the hills are an unbelievable green, and on a recent visit, the usually dry Lost Valley creek was remarkably and happily flowing. Your final miles along the Manzana are easy and quiet, mercifully mellow and shady. Back at your car, you can mark off a prime spring experience in an otherworldly, beautiful portion of our backcountry.

 

Going on a Santa Barbara Soundwalk

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When planning our vacations and staycations, we’re usually led by our eyes — here’s a reason we call it sightseeing. But have you ever traveled somewhere to hear how it sounds? Your very own city may be a great place to discover soundwalking, an activity akin to wine tasting wherein you savor the notes that express one terrain. Free to anyone, all it takes is a bit of walking with your ears as well as your eyes open, though closing the latter sometimes helps.

Inspired by Re-sound, a guided walk led by artist Andrea Polli in June 2016 and sponsored by the Museum of Contemporary Art S.B., let us help you springboard your own aural map of S.B., full of human sounds and animal sounds, loud ones and quiet ones, near ones and far.

Goleta Beach

As you leave the parking lot and walk toward the sand, you depart from the chatter of cormorants and ducks and move closer to the bray of seagulls. On the pier, passersby murmur and a fisherman’s daughter laughs, and then enters the booming buzz of the Goleta airport prop planes. Above and below all, the sound of the ocean — one of the most powerful sounds on earth — resonates, crashing and soothing unendingly.

Mission Rose Garden

Nestled between the Mission’s bricks and the home façades of Plaza Rubio on hilly terrain, this grassy knoll enjoys a strong and dreamy reverb quality. The voices of children and their playfully reprimanding parents or caretakers resound, and cars stream sleepily by while the lovely song of finches is aflutter all around.
 

Franceschi Park

High above S.B., the listener is afforded varying strata of traffic noise — oth the hazy hum of the faraway freeway and the more immediate cars careening on Alameda Padre Serra. A leaf blower and suburban din cut through many frequencies, but a preponderance of birds reminds you of how pleasant everything else is.


 

Quarantina Street

Not far from the wine-tasting rooms of the Funk Zone, the neighborhood on the opposite side of Garden Street is flush with sounds of hard work: construction workers hammering, truckers trucking. On the corner of the street, the industrial wall of sound from Cemex is punctuated by a rather delightful backup tone from a cement truck, which bubbles up like a Super Nintendo sound effect.

S.B. Public Library

One of the quietest places in S.B., here you almost swear you can hear the sound of thoughts themselves among the soft thumb of turning pages. An insectile, air-conditioning din hangs in the room. All is mostly quiet until a cell ringer goes off, and then a video chat begins to blare in the library lobby. “Sir!” a librarian says, and thankfully the quiet is preserved.

 

Exploring Golden Canyon in Death Valley National Park

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Of all the seemingly countless trails through canyons and washes in the million-plus acre Death Valley National Park, the Golden Canyon Trail is the one of the most popular, and with good reason. A brightly colored land of chaotic geology that defies the imagination — yet possessing a feeling of openness and ease — it’s both imposing and inviting. What’s more, the trail is doable for all skill levels, ranging from easy hiking to more advanced explorations.

If you have time, the best way to enjoy Golden Canyon is via the Golden Canyon-Gower Gulch Loop. This four-mile hike leads one mile up the aptly named Golden Canyon toward the deceptively tall Manly Beacon, then back down to the gnarled, rocky walls of Gower Gulch. The trail is largely interpretive, and you may make your own way at your own leisure. There are plenty of side canyons, nooks, and crannies to explore; let your spirit guide you.

A set of tall canyon walls greet you at the entrance, their bizarre beauty only fully comprehendible once you can look back at them. These walls soon give way to grand alluvial fans of clay and mud as the canyon widens. Within the first mile, a well-marked spur leads to Red Cathedral, a monument of carnelian cliffs composed partly of oxidized iron, giving them their color. They tower over badlands carved over millennia by the emptying of a prehistoric lake and many flash floods thereafter.

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In this landscape, sunken more than ten thousand feet below Death Valley’s highest rim, hikers are quite apparently small, both relative to the rocks surrounding and to the mighty expanse of time that composed them. A strange feeling of resignation followed all the hikers on a recent MLK Day weekend, as if people had accepted their fate to carry up that quiet canyon, in a valley named Death. Because the canyon can be busy, it can be good to post up in the shade and watch people go by, or escape into a side canyon altogether. Out of earshot and eyesight of other trekkers, you feel the barrenness of the land, ancient, timeless, and silent, as it has been for centuries.

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At about a mile, the trail rises up the slopes of Manly Beacon, a spire of golden-white rock that looms much larger as you get closer. Named after William J. Manly, who helped save the nearly-doomed party of 49ers (a member of whom famously coined the valley’s present-day name), this roost affords astounding views of all the colorful badlands, with their subtle rainbows of cinnamon and tan-colored striations, plus the salt flats beyond, and the towering Panamint Range. This is where many hikers stop before turning around.

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Keep going, and you’ll begin a gradual descent through the no less fascinating Gower Gulch, a stupefying canyon of rocky walls and contorted cliffs, displaying surprising colors like green and purple. “Death Valley is the Grand Canyon put into a juicer and minced,” said geologist, author, and guide Wayne Ranney, and the crazed beauty of this gulch exemplifies his statement. There’s not really a trail here, you just continue down the wash. You may come across an old borax mine opening, perilous to enter and most likely barred off by the National Park Service, but very exciting to witness.

The trail descends through a narrow wash, and you may wonder if you’ve lost the track. Shortly, the walls widen, and you once again can see the valley floor open up before you, with tiny cars crisscrossing its surface. Their dainty presence is a reminder that you haven’t left the planet altogether, but on your hike back to your own car, you may wonder. There’s hardly a place on Earth as spectacularly spacey as this landscape, so seemingly unearthly and yet so very earthly, a graceful expression of nature’s abstract art.


 

Beyond Manzana School House

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Whether a veteran of the backcountry trails or a newcomer to its enchantments, now is the perfect time to visit or revisit the Lower Manzana Trail in the San Rafael Wilderness. Drenched with rain in recent weeks, the San Rafael Wilderness will be at its most hospitable and beautiful until April and May, and at present it’s a magical land of rushing rivers and greens beyond belief. What’s more, the trail has gotten some recent TLC from Los Padres Forest Association volunteers.

This popular trail travels 8 miles along Manzana Creek to the Manzana Schoolhouse, likely the most traveled-to weekend destination second to the Manzana Narrows on the Upper Manzana Trail. However, this route describes a recent late January trek with a few friends beyond the Manzana Schoolhouse to the fabled and seldom-seen Sisquoc River, returning back over the mighty ridges of the infamous Hurricane Deck — all in a watery, wearying, wonderful weekend.

We set out on Friday night under a new moon, the wilderness as dark as could be. Though our destination, Coldwater Camp, was a mere 2.8 miles from the trailhead, the Manzana crisscrossed our shins three or four times, providing a unique and chilly thrill to the already adventurous activity of night backpacking. The ambient temperatures were near freezing. After a brisk journey into night, we arrived at the wide-open meadows of Coldwater Camp and awoke the next day to a frosty expanse of grass and oaks. Had we been up for a few more foot-soakings, Horseshoe Bend, only another 1.6 miles, would have be another great first-night destination, with its particularly resplendent, shady meadows, and views of the sandstone domes of Castle Rock to wake up to in the morning.

 

This region of the trail, as it passed from Coldwater and Horseshoe Bend, was Manzana traveling at its most delightful, as namesake bends in the river shimmered blue under Castle Rock’s white crags, towering above us in a scene we could never imagine as belonging to Santa Barbara’s backyard. As the trail moved under the shadow of Zaca Ridge and on the verge of private property, the trail became a wide, beaten dirt road dotted with the occasional “no trespassing” posting. This is a land of many uses, as you’ll see at just over 6 miles from the trailhead, when you come to the cabin of one Charles William Dabney, a wealthy Santa Barbara sportsman who leased the land and built a cabin near his favorite trout fishing spots back in 1914. The cabin has since been used as a Midland School destination for students until the mid-century, when it was designated a historical county landmark.

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Between here and Manzana Schoolhouse, about 8 miles from the trailhead, we witnessed just these kinds of varied approaches to this wild land. We beheld in one vista the curving Manzana Creek, a private ranchland, a former pioneer settlement, the mountainous backdrop of a private resort (Zaca Lake, once a holy site for Chumash), and a federally designated wilderness left to unfold naturally, with traces of societies left behind. Where the Manzana and the Sisquoc meet was once part of a series of settlements along the Sisquoc, a land that proved too unreliably nourishing and too unforgivingly hot for many Westerners who sought refuge here.

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If you have three full days at your disposal and not just two, the Manzana Schoolhouse would be a great first-day destination. I had hardly ever seen a grass so green and a meadow so peaceful and beautiful as the ones surrounding this site overlooking the emerald green hills of Horse Gulch Canyon and the almost pyramidal white face of Wheat Peak. Many people end their trips here, understandably so.

Far fewer, it seems, go very far beyond, as the trail along the Lower Sisquoc is comparatively brushy and hard to follow. Shorts are inadvisable for this 4-mile stretch to Water Canyon, beautiful though it is, as thorny chaparral will prick your legs for the next mile or so. This is wide-open country draped in beautiful moss and haunting oaks, and the sight of the serene Sisquoc is a welcoming one. A federally designated Wild and Scenic River, the wilderness length of the Sisquoc has been never been filtered through city light pollution and maintains an untouched mystique as it winds lazily between the Sierra Madre and San Rafael ranges. Being so far from paved road access, the trails are less maintained and become harder to follow the further you go.

We met the Sisquoc River at a beautiful crossing with surprisingly dramatic geology. After this, finding the trail here became difficult; it trends toward the right, through an old, dilapidated corral fence. As the sun began its descent to the horizon, we traversed a wide meadow mesa graced with the occasional oaks. Underneath the shadow of Bald Mountain and Hurricane Deck, this portion of the Sisquoc trail was a peaceful slice of heaven with an expansive feeling of open freedom.

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The trail descended to a broad meadow, the site of an old homestead. Evidence of decades-old land use, long-forgotten, rusted along the way. A topographic map like Bryan Conant’s San Rafael Wilderness map is critical to navigate your way along the curves of the river, as the trail seems to disappear and reappear at points. We faced navigational difficulties just as the sun left us, and were left to ford through waist-deep crossings by the light of our headlamps, almost more like spelunking than backpacking.

The most reliable way to find Water Canyon Campground was by seeking out the convergence of the Water Canyon tributary with the Sisquoc, appearing on the western bank of the river. The very pleasant camp is across the river underneath a beautiful sentinel oak, complete with a set of watchful deer antlers hanging in the canopy.

Our final day was set to be a daunting one: We would travel back 4 miles to the meeting with the junction with the Hurricane Deck Trail, climb over 2,200 feet across 4.4 miles to meet the Potrero Trail, then descend 1,700 feet down 3.2 miles to our final 1.3 miles back to the car — in all, about 13 miles of journeying.

This route is only for the truly hardy and adventurous, and it will test the spirits of even excellent hikers. It’s not just the physical hardship of the switchbacks that scissor through the oaken shade up the first ascent, or the beating sun which, even on a relatively mild winter afternoon, felt too hot at points, or the fact our legs had already taken us so far and through so many river crossings. It’s the psychology of this trail: the way the trail became worryingly hard to follow on the steepest stretches, and the unrelenting rise and fall of the ridge, which, mirage-like, appears easier than it really is.

Our pace slowed to a mile an hour, and one party member ventured concern about passing out. As the months get warmer, it is extremely important that anyone who attempts this know how to identify signs of dehydration and overheating. Take as much time as you need to travel this trail. But we persevered and were awarded with one of the most stunning sunset vista points anywhere in our county. There were views of the snowy San Rafael Mountains on one horizon, their snows the source of the rivers we had traversed, and the far-off Pacific Ocean on another, where eventually the waters of the Manzana and the Sisquoc end their journey and begin one anew.

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Autumn in Paradise Valley

    

 

 

The best time of year to visit the most popular trail in the epic Kings Canyon National Park might be the fall. In October and November, before the end of the road closes down for the winter, the vast canyon is quiet and hushed with the sound of whispering aspens and the low-flowing but still mighty Kings River. While visitors are still guaranteed on a weekend, you will be among the few wanderers in that rock cathedral as the darkening season slowly shuts its doors.

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Besides its quietude, there is no need to reserve a permit in advance at that time of year, unlike during the busier summer months when you will be in stiff competition with many other travelers. And with good reason: with a manageable mileage and largely level trail, the unspeakably beautiful way up to the alpine meadow of Paradise Valley along Woods Creek is perfect for beginners and seasoned adventurers alike. Named by none other than John Muir, Paradise Valley is a place of profound peace, even at its most crowded. Many use the trail as the first leg of longer journeys into Kings Canyon’s immense and rugged wild lands, where majestic and at times menacing massifs tower over you in all directions, particularly the popular Rae Lakes Loop, which intersects with the John Muir Trail and PCT. So while you may likely see a soul along this stroll, not a thousand could make you feel any less small beneath the high walls surrounding.


The trail begins at the Woods and Bubbs Creek Trailheads in the shadow of the Grand Sentinel, a prominent rock wall topping out at 8518 feet – over 3,000 feet above you. For the first two miles, the trail is as easygoing as it gets, with a wide, sandy path maintaining levelly just above the banks of the Kings River. You walk here through a canyon floor meadow dense with ponderosas and incense cedars, illuminated by the orange leaves of black oaks and cottonwoods.

At two miles, the trail reaches the junction of Woods and Bubbs Creek. A bridge leads you further east to Sphinx Creek on the Bubbs Creek Trail; instead, head left up the hill, towards Mist Falls. It’s here that the trail begins to increase in elevation and in difficulty. You rise 600 feet in elevation as you head towards Mist Falls, which is still thundering even in autumn but without the wall of water preventing close access earlier in the year. It’s a quick climb over a mile, making the misty rainbow-spray of Mist Falls a lovely resting spot. In fact, this is where many people stop, then turn around.

Keep climbing up switchbacks. The going is slightly tough, but the views behind you are incredible. The behemoth rock formation known as the Sphinx lords over the piney valley between its fellow gigantic glaciated granite walls, while strands of autumnal trees streak across the valley in vibrant color.

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The trail ascends another 400 feet or so for two miles, until you reach Lower Paradise Valley Campground at about 6 miles in and 6,575 feet in elevation. The roar of the river is gone, replaced with a languid, lazy calm as Woods Creek ambles gently through Paradise Valley. The water here is a tranquil turquoise color. Many journeys end here, but if the campsite is full, go forward another easy mile. The trail is relatively level from here on out, with the hardest part below and behind you. Continue onwards for another mile to Middle Paradise Valley, which is nestled along a beautiful bend in the creek.

Upper Paradise Valley, at just over 10 miles from the trailhead, is the last sleeping spot in this serene valley, and a destination too far for many for one day. But let not the mileage dissuade you; remaining relatively level with only some slight and gradual gain, the final three miles from Middle Paradise are not a whole lot more to endure. In Upper Paradise, you are very close against dramatic granitic spires, and the adventurous may climb upon a small rocky fortress just beyond camp. Up here, you can see the entirety of Paradise Valley in all its grandeur – like having your own private Yosemite, it is a vista providing joys untold.

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No matter how far up Paradise Valley you travel, you will be treated to one of the finest places viewable in a day within one of the most glorious and grand stretches of earth on this planet.

Lost & Found in Lost Valley

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The first thing to greet me on my way to Lost Valley in the San Rafael Wilderness was a furry deer hoof still attached to skinless leg bones. The rest of the animal was not to be found. It was either a clue of life circling, or a foreboding omen. The air was humid and the skies stormy, the last clouds clinging to a day that followed a night of rains. I left town on account of feeling particularly lost in that moment of life, tethered to a balloon bouquet of stressful commitments and confusions, each rapidly inflating with quickening changes, their strings and paths entangling, my sense of direction and faith faltering.

I went to Lost Valley, a place I had been once before after a steep descent from the East Hurricane Deck Trail. The miles of sandstone belting the valley, and the many boulders and rock caverns hidden within, left an impression on me. Close to 100 years ago now, they once planned to build a road through the valley that would connect Nira campground to the Sierra Madre Mountains on the opposite end of the wilderness. That plan vanished, like the homesteaders who vanished along the Manzana and Sisquoc, leaving hints of existence behind.

Others have lived in the Lost Valley, that being the longtime residents and roamers who first claimed this region — or at least they left their mark there. A heavy feeling of what once was sweeps through the San Rafael Wilderness. It radiates in the paintings of departed ancients, it travels in the wind through scorched manzanita and burnt oaks, and it lingers in the dry silence of rocks unmet by water in months, or years. But there is also a powerful feeling of what remains for eons, in the towering architecture of the sandstone rocks and the mighty Deck, the whisper of the grass and digger pines, and in the repeating songs of owls along the creek bed and of crickets under stars.

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It’s a good place to contemplate stillness, sit back, and watch the cycles of thought. They come and go like the roads people planned to plow. They leave as easily as leaves in fire. Nothing much moves in Lost Valley, except the occasional lonesome crow, or the bats flitting out of caves. The caves conceal many little brittle bones, skulls of rats or bats. I explored them with a boundless sense of discovery, and left my stress to die there.

I climbed to the top of one of the rocks in the valley, and watched as the storm passed. The sun sank and softened the barren intensity of the land. The bands of rock became aflame in pink. A slow and fiery meteorite, paralleling the sun, broke into a smaller piece, and then a smaller, and then dotted out. Up on the rock, for a short while, I was happily no one. I was a human animal amidst a looming landscape, one bigger and more long-lasting than I.

 

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I laid down in the grass and watched the stars come out. The stresses that had so strangled me loosened and left one by one. I was able to think a little more deeply, about who I was beneath it all, about who and what endured below the endless rush. I thought of others, I came to terms, I forgave. And lying down, my mind went deeper still, to lie in sync with the stillness of this lost and lonesome place, and to smile at the stars above, thinking: The universe is beautiful.

Fall Foothills Hiking in the West Sierra

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Many Santa Barbarans love the high country of the Sierra Nevada mountains, with its world-famous glacial valleys and otherworldly tall peaks, but far fewer have enjoyed the trail riches nestled in the slightly closer foothills. There, great backpacking opportunities open up just as the high country is closing down.

Two of the best trails in the Sierra foothills can be found less than four hours’ drive from Santa Barbara, along two major river corridors: the Wishon Trail along the Tule River in Sequoia National Forest, and the Ladybug Trail along the South Fork Kaweah River in Sequoia National Park. Both offer relatively easy, relatively under-the-radar hiking to rushing rivers, paradisiacal waterfalls, and towering sequoia redwood trees. What’s more, with thousands of dead trees now browning the landscape, the two watersheds also offer an unnerving but eye-opening education into the environmental stresses pressing upon our wildernesses, and the ambiguity of our role within them.

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The Wishon Trail begins a quarter mile after a closed gate on Wishon Road east of Springville, just past Camp Wishon. Many flock to the natural water slides coursing down the river’s lower reaches, and access points can be found along this road. Thanks to these destinations, the Wishon Trail itself sits overlooked, with day-trippers venturing no further and other backpackers heading to the higher Summit and Maggie lakes trails on opposite sides of the Tule watershed. First traveled by the Tule river natives, the trail is a historical mining trail, used by prospectors in the mid-1800s to mine copper, galena, and limestone.

The hike begins from the pavement, switchbacking easily over some cabins below and entering pine forest. At 1.5 miles, the trail reaches a junction to Doyle Springs; continue toward the left, uphill. The trail proceeds with minor dips and gains in elevation but remains mostly level for its duration; the trail is hardly a climb. The path offers views into the Golden Trout Wilderness, where granite-topped peaks look down upon a vast forest of sequoia, ponderosa, sugar pine, and incense cedar, and below you, the last hints of the chaparral ecosystem transitions into a more coniferous one. The forest will be a mix of green and brown, living and dead, and the Wishon’s wide expanses offer sobering glimpses of a changing landscape.

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At around 2.5 miles, you reach Rose’s Grave, the first campsite and supposed burial site of William Rose, who died at his gold claim in 1879, according to historian Claud “Sonny” Rouch. Though his sons tried to transport him back home for a proper burial on the backs of burros, by day three his body had begun to decompose, and they selected this site, where a lovely swimming hole sits at a decently sized flat. However, hikers would do better to hike one more mile, where a pair of better sits overlook a sheltered nook along the river just south of an incredibly beautiful waterfall that spills out from jagged, multicolored cliffs. One can continue on for several more miles, entering the sequoia-stacked Mountain Home State Forest, and ever further up the Tule River; but for the purposes of our short trip, this waterfall location cannot be beat.

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The Ladybug Trail in Sequoia National Park is similar to the Wishon Trail in that it is another relatively easy and short trip that moves from chaparral and blue oak woodland into pine-peaked waterfall worlds, but it’s slightly more difficult, and slightly more remote. Use caution on the rocky dirt road leading to the trailhead, which can be traversed by a two-wheel-drive sedan but not without some trepidation. Fourteen campsites make up the grounds of the South Fork Campground, and as far as trailhead camps go, this one is very nice, with easy access to the Kaweah River.

Beginning at 3,640 feet in elevation, you quickly cross a footbridge to neighboring nearby Clough Cave, which has been closed to prevent vandalism. You climb steadily and reach Bone Hill, a mountain not unlike the golden-grassed peaks of our own San Rafael Wilderness, and you may notice the landscape transitioning. Homer’s Nose, a massive rock dome perched above the South Fork Kaweah, shows itself for the first time at just over half a mile. In the summer and fall months, this can be an aggressively hot stretch, making Ladybug Camp’s arrival at 1.7 miles a very welcome site. Ladybug Camp sits next to a most gorgeous waterfall, where marbled metamorphic rock enshrines an emerald green pool. Most people end their journey here.

If you would like to continue on to a more secluded site, continue to either of the next two sites, Cedar Creek at 3.1 miles, or Whiskeylog Camp at 4. Following the Ladybug waterfall, you embark on one of the steeper climbs in the trip, first with a series of switchbacks and then a more gradual incline across grassy meadows. The mighty Kaweah River thunders below, and the views here are expansive, where in one vista you can see Homer’s Nose protruding gently skyward to the south, the marvelous Dennison Ridge bedecked with incoming autumnal colors, sequoia-strewn Garfield Creek merging with the Kaweah, and the vast river canyon leading eastward toward some of the Sierra’s highest peaks, just out of view. Once again, you get a sense of tree mortality, and the impermanence of the wilderness — before you lies an ecosystem undergoing dramatic shifts.

At 3.1 miles and 750 feet higher than Ladybug, you reach Cedar Creek, an idyllic and shady spot protected by the presence of massive sequoias with a lovely trickling stream. Depending on the season, this is also where you may get your first glimpse of the thousands of ladybugs that give the trail its name.

The last stretch of trail has a few ups and downs, descending just after Cedar Creek and regaining the elevation not long after — Cedar Creek and Whiskeylog are at more or less the same elevations. The extra effort feels a little annoying, but at just under a mile between the two camps, the last bit of push is not too much to bear. Soon, waterfalls and polished granite boulders come into view, and you arrive at the beautiful Whiskeylog Camp, where a stunning series of small waterfalls tumble like an unstrung jewel necklace underneath the girth of huge trees.

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With only weeks left until the higher Sierra becomes impassable, these foothill and mid-elevation trails offer excellent escapes not too far from home, with abundant water and very few crowds. Though also a stark reminder of our planet’s fragile health, may they inspire you to pursue stewardship and preservation after you have soaked in waterfall solitude.

 

Sequoia National Park’s Lake Trail to Emerald Lake

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For simply one of the best day hikes in our Golden State, consider tackling Sequoia National Park’s Lake Trail. Often done as an overnight backpack and very popular on some summer weekends, the spectacular climb is deservedly a famed route and has the foot traffic to show for it. But the views are so epically sprawling and the lakes so soul-soothingly pristine that even big crowds are dwarfed in the majestic expanse of one of the West Sierra’s best escapes.

The hike is a relatively moderate one by some Sierra standards and is doable as a day hike, but it’s a bit of a huff if you do the whole thing. You likely should not attempt it if you are not in at least decent hiking shape — the altitude gain, rising 2,000 feet to almost above the tree line, will be felt all the more given the elevation, not to mention the eight-ten miles of round-trip traveling. Pace yourself and bring plenty of water, or a filter if you have one.

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The trailhead begins at 7,280 feet, off Wolverton Road. The first mile moves gently through a green world of dense pine forests and, if you’re lucky, blooms of leopard lily, stands of monkey flower, and carpets of mustang clover will add colorful flair to the forest splendor. Sunlight is reduced to mere beams in parts of this stretch, and it splays out into meadow-wide expanses in others. Through the trees you are afforded glimpses of dramatically glaciated Tokopah Valley, over which you soon will look.

At 1.8 miles from the trailhead, you come to a junction; stay left, as going right would lead you to the Alta Peak and Mehrten Meadow trail. From here, the trail begins to climb noticeably, but it does not stop being lovely, with abundant worlds of fern and surprising streams and little waterfalls occasionally tumbling across your path. At mile 2.1, you come to another junction, offering you the choice between the Watchtower Trail or the Hump Trail. By all accounts, the former is more scenic and easier on the legs, and the latter steeper, shadier, and somehow more upsetting. Some sign scrawlings on a recent hike showed an arrow pointing left to “brains” for those taking the Watchtower, and to the right, “fuckn steep” for The Hump. For the purposes of this trip, we will use our brains and not go so steeply.

Continue on for about another mile, and here the trail really becomes something awe-inspiring. At mile 3.3, after two switchbacks, you mount the Watchtower overlook, and all the massive beauty of Tokopah Valley unfolds before you. With a view to rival similar valley overlooks in Yosemite, you can see in one vista the coursing white jet of the Marble Fork Kaweah River and its thundering falls, huge meadows sloping down the domes above, and the grand crest of the Kings-Kaweah Divide. Smooth white-gray granite graces the entire vista. Those with easily-induced vertigo or a fear of heights may not like this or the remainder of trail, as for the next leg you will walk on an exposed and unprotected path with sheer, 2,000-foot slopes to your side. The Watchtower is a great stopping point if the first climb was too taxing, so soak in the views before turning around — but the remaining stretch is relatively level.

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Level — and heavenly. From here, you are soaring above the valley, enroute to a string of lakes, with clusters of pink pussy paws accompany you on your promenade. The first, Heather Lake, at 4.1 miles, is a beautifully calm and placid place, with a wide wall of granite framing its grassy and smoothly bouldered shores. The water is a deep jade color, and red firs rim its round perimeter. Heather Lake makes for an ideal lunch spot, and an equally ideal place to linger for hours, being a calm and lesser-visited lake compared to the camping destination lakes further up. No camping is allowed here.

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Continue on into the divine higher realms of the final mile, where streams tumble down into the glacial canyon, and deer picturesquely munch on flowers on your rocky route. Mighty, snow-capped Alta Peak towers above all at 11,204 feet, reminding you of your tiny size and short life span in the scope of geologic time. There is a very modest amount of elevation gain from Heather to Aster and Emerald Lakes, which you will subsequently lose and regain on the way back — Emerald Lake, though higher up on the trail, is technically 50 feet lower in elevation than the trail’s first lake.

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As you descend to Emerald Lake, you have the option to visit nearby Aster Lake, which is prettily poised in its own cirque near the edge of a sheer drop-off. For now, choose to stay right, where you will pass a conspicuously out of place but nonetheless happily convenient NPS toilet at mile 5.1, and step toward Emerald Lake. Hidden by trees and dipped beneath granite cliffs, the lake itself is never quite visible until its shore, so don’t be mistaken into thinking the milky-blue-gray pond sitting just before it is the lake, as some visitors have done.

Pass by or settle at one of the nearby eight campsites until you make your way to the shore, guarded by granite slabs. Under gigantic, cathedral-like towers of jagged rock and a serene waterfall spilling down from higher lakes, you finally see Emerald Lake, one of the grand beauties of the Sierra. It is an understandably popular destination, so pure solitude may not be yours here, but shielded within such a dramatic bowl of rocky spires and snow, the lake nonetheless imparts the solitude of being a small, happy speck on the shore.

When you are ready to leave, turn around, or continue another mile, as many do, to Pear Lake, considered by many the most beautiful of the main lakes on the trail; or even hike further up, to legendary Moose Lake, the grandest and least often-seen. No matter whether you stop at the Watchtower or any of the lakes, you will be treated to some of the best and most easily-accessed lakes of the West Sierra. One forewarning: after beauty this grand, it’s difficult to return.

 

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Alone in the Badlands

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There’s a place resting midway between the sea and the summit of sky-scraping Mt. Pinos, a sprawling maze of twisted earth not quite like anywhere else in the Los Padres: the Cuyama Badlands. I had spotted these mysterious lands first from atop Ojai’s Pine Mountain and wondered ever since what was concealed amid the alluvial folds. Coming down from a joyous MLK weekend snow-camping trip spent with friends atop Mt. Pinos, I needed one last escape before my regular life. I decided to finally visit the beguiling badlands — alone.

On the mountain and below it, I traveled through sacred lands. The Chumash of old regarded the looming Mt. Pinos as the center of the universe. To them, it was a land held in balance. Whether stargazing on its peak or viewed from afar, it’s easy to understand why: The gently sloping, rounded mound watches over the surrounding lands like a mother, cradling a peaceful landscape of quiet magnificence. The Badlands form the base of this cosmic centerpiece, becoming gradually more forested as they climb in elevation. Hiking through them, one can’t help but see the rocks as reverent, the strange red rock spires and cathedrals ascending upward to the snowy slopes and stars above.

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The Cuyama Badlands are an enclosed world of their own, bordered by piney mountains on all sides and seldom visited. Eroded over many years by waters descending from the surrounding peaks and fractured by fault activity, the gnarled landscape defies easy navigation or settlement. Some have built ranches or vineyards upon the mineral rich soils, but most who visit seem to pass through on off-road vehicles. Three rugged dirt roads provide the main outdoor access to this region: Quatal Canyon, Apache Canyon, and Dry Canyon. I traveled down Dry Canyon.

Leaving from Dome Springs Campground, a spacious free camp hidden between piñon and juniper, I walked into the main Dry Canyon wash. A few rowdier campers have unfortunately littered the region with broken bottles and bullet casings — be careful where you tread. The first segment of the wash is a four-wheel-drive route, and you may share the road with jeeps or motorcycles, as I did. After some slow travel through the sand, the tire tracks thin and the trash fades, and the river bed leads to the Chumash Wilderness.

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My journey took me to the end of Dry Canyon, where the hills rise in a jagged choir of red, pink, and white. The formations are incredible, reminiscent of the spectacular geology of the Mojave or what I imagine parts of Utah to be like. I came across hoodoos, arches, and mud caves, rocks of unbelievable color and shape. Dwarfed in the canyon corridors, enveloped in silence, I felt an ancientness and timelessness, myself a small blip in the Badlands’ millions of years of quiet witness. Archaeologists have discovered abundant fossils in these hills, and traveling among them, you are reminded of your own tiny role in the giant course of shifting geologic time. Here, you are very small.

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Whether traveling for mystical or merely recreational reasons, the Badlands’ Dry Canyon area invites all kinds of adventure. There aren’t really trails out here, only washes and sparsely treed hills, making for excellent cross-country travel. Hikers would do well to stick to the washes, as hiking along the many rising hills often leads to a steep drop or impassable sharp ridge. The deeper you travel, the closer you get to the mystifying rock formations. You could spend an entire day here, or more. Each spur in the wash leads to its own canyon, each concealing its own surprises and secrets. Just be aware of where you have gone and for how long — the labyrinth of washes and ridges can be very disorienting, especially after a long, hot hike. Do not attempt it if your navigation skills are poor. Water does run through these dry lands after storms, so plan your own trip accordingly.

I rambled through the lands for several hours, exploring several tributaries. After a while, it became clear I would need another day, or many, to explore every aspect, and even then, the essence of the Badlands would still elude me. Silent and strange, it cannot be aptly summed up by any assemblage of words. Nor can I quite recommend a specific route, other than to just go along the major wash and explore for yourself. You will likely come out, as I did, awed, humbled, and centered. A land held in balance, indeed.

 

 

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Salmon Creek Trail

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Salmon Creek is the southernmost wilderness trailhead in the Big Sur region, and being so, it has a slightly different character than the canyons and river worlds farther north. There are no redwoods; instead, a lush blend of bay, maple, alder, and sugar pines are kneaded in the folds of yucca-dotted chaparral. The creek tumbles for miles from its Santa Lucia highlands heights before plummeting down the 100-plus-foot Salmon Creek Falls, which, at a quarter of a mile from the Highway 1, are a favorite stopover for day-hikers visiting from across the world. Those willing to venture beyond the falls will be rewarded with stunning views and some of the most joyous boulder-hopping creek exploration this side of the Ventana Wilderness.

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The trailhead begins immediately off Highway 1, not long after the Ragged Point Inn. Take a moment to visit Salmon Creek Falls, a powerful set of two-tiered towers of white water. The open ground of bay-shaded boulders would make a nice resting spot or last minute-preparation area, and the long pool at the falls’ base is as inviting a swimming pool as any. Linger here for as long as you like, but rest assured that more waterfalls await ahead.

Return to the sign, marked S.C. Trail, and follow it up the zigzagging path. From the Salmon Creek Falls starting point at 230 feet, the trail rises sharply to 760 feet in less than a mile — i.e., very steeply, very quickly. Strenuous though it may be, the views of the road and coast below are soothing to the soul and have a way of lightening loads. In the summer, as in a recent late-spring hike, the coast may be heavily fogged in. Given the elevation gain, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing but in fact a mercifully cooling one. It’s also nature’s surrealistic way of marking the end of the road, and the beginning of wilderness. You will pass poppies, monkey flowers, and foothill yucca as you weave between grassy stretches and oak-enclosed patches. Trail poles would not be a bad idea, especially for the return trip.

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Like all the glorious trails tracing river canyons up north, the Salmon Creek Trail allows visitors to transition from the lush lands close to the sea to the drier, grassier higher reaches and appreciate the entire ecosystem contained between. Salmon Creek differs noticeably in its flora, and being one ridge too south to contain a true strand of redwoods, it’s a unique little in-between zone of its own, the most southerly region of the northern Los Padres. This becomes most apparent as you gain elevation, seeing pines below from your oaky rock perch.

After a tough initial climb, the trail levels out, and the remaining trail to the intersection with Dutra Flat at two miles is easy sailing. If you enjoy the sound of a large and peaceful meadow in a pine and chaparral foothill expanse, then Dutra Flat would be a worthy side trip or destination on its own, as many make it to be. If you prefer the creek, instead, head left a short ways until the trail descends to Spruce Creek Camp. This boulder-sheltered expanse has three sites with fire rings, including one with a bench.

The trail continues another mile to Estrella Camp, a meadow-situated site with side trails down to the creek. While the last mile offers some great views of Salmon Creek’s more hidden waterfalls, an alternative for the truly adventurous would be instead to base camp at Spruce Creek and forgo the trail in favor of hiking up the creek itself. While this is only recommended for the hardy and the environmentally sensitive, creek-hopping and river exploration are some of the greatest joys offered in the Silver Peak and Ventana Wilderness areas, with their abundantly bouldered waterways. A seldom-seen, many mile–stretch of tranquil grottos, peaceful private ponds, tiers of small waterfalls, mossy overhangs raining streams of water, and fern-gartered boulders all await those who are willing to hike up the creek and able to do so with due stewardship to the landscape — it is especially important to leave no trace in this watershed, where trout and many insects live.

Regardless of how far up you go, the Salmon Creek Trail is an excellent option for those looking for a moderately challenging and massively rewarding visit to the Big Sur region not too far from home. Though it lacks the classic redwooded look of other trailheads, it has all the same magic that makes Big Sur so special and a unique character all its own.

 

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East Camino Cielo to Auga Caliente Canyon

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NOTE: This route is for serious and practiced adventurers only. Barring any major rain events this spring, the following route from East Camino Cielo to Upper Agua Caliente Canyon will likely only be doable for another month or two until next winter or spring. Water sources are intermittent and increasingly unreliable as the summer nears. Due to a barely discernible trail, only those with navigational skills and outdoor experience should visit Upper Caliente, even if arriving to the trailhead by car.

The Big Caliente Hot Springs are one of the most popular destinations in our backcountry, but hardly anyone ventures past to see the canyon from which their neighboring creek flows. Those few who do will witness an almost untrammeled land, one vibrant with massive meadowlands and chaotic red rock. Though technically not even wilderness — the canyon is wedged between, but never enters, the Dick Smith and Matilija Wilderness areas — there are few places in Santa Barbara County accessible within a day that feel this wild, remote, or special.

Though one can drive to the trailhead, the road is often closed or rugged due to weather. A much more adventurous option is there for those willing to put in the miles and willing to risk a lack of water. Leaving from East Camino Cielo, this route descends from the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains into the vast expanses of Blue Canyon and the Mid-Santa Ynez area before traveling up into the wide and rugged drainage known as Agua Caliente. The route is about 10 miles from East Camino Cielo to Upper Caliente Camp (9.9 by map measurements), including almost 2,000 feet of descent in the first 2.6 miles (1,876 feet to be exact), which will be regained on the way out.

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The trek begins at Cold Springs Saddle, where one heads downward first to Forbush Flats (1.7 miles in). From up here, one can already see the red hues of Agua Caliente perking up between the purplish folds of foothills fanning out in front of you. Continue ever-downward through whispering oaks until you arrive at the big meadows of Cottam Camp (2.6 miles in). If you can make it a two-night trek, this a great place to stay for the first leg of your journey. Flowing water is more abundant here than anywhere else up ahead.

From here, the trail crosses into the flatlands that merge Blue Canyon with the wider river valley of the Santa Ynez. The path meanders across wide rock-strewn banks, where a colorful scattering of serpentine and schist spread out underneath you. The trail itself can be slightly easy to lose, but not the way — just keep heading north. You pass the Santa Ynez River, or rather riverbed, which was even by end of March completely dry in large patches. Around here, the forests are quiet, grassy, and undisturbed, resting in a seldom-visited slice in between areas with more frequent recreation.

You arrive next at Romero-Camuesa Road, where the occasional jeep rolls by. Here, the road is dusty, dry, and slightly disheartening, being away from any water source and with infrequent shade. The bodies of toads lay squashed and sun-dried along the way, a bit of natural selection via 4WD. A good rest stop or another first-night sleeping option would be one of two drive-in campgrounds, P-Bar Flat at 4.8 miles in, or Middle Santa Ynez at 5.9.

The next reliably flowing water after Cottam Camp and the stretch of creek thereafter could be found at dripping Pendola Debris Dam. Constructed to prevent runoff from silting Gibraltar Reservoir, this and Agua Caliente Dam a couple further miles up now stand as both sad and funny relics to more watery times. Traveling here by foot instead of car allows you ample time to appreciate the surprisingly beautiful geology of the canyon’s wide mouth as cars kick up dust nearby. Continue two miles up the road until you reach the Big Caliente Hot Springs, a more-than-welcome relaxation point and where most journeys to this area end. 

If you can wrest yourself from the loving arms of Big Caliente, then you will be treated in the next two miles with the beautiful rarity of seldom-seen Upper Caliente. Agua Caliente Debris Dam guards this relatively untouched section of riparian land, a pathetic pool kneeling at its dry walls. Beyond, the trail disappears into a forest rich with grassy undergrowth and sprawling sycamores and oaks. Though level, I hesitate to describe it as “easy” in the usual sense — this is not a place for those who need a trail to travel.

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Passing this grassy forest, the route opens up to reveal the sprawling meadowlands that characterize Upper Caliente. The gateway to this wonderland is an idyllic rock-bound swimming pool known as The Oasis, just over a mile from the trailhead. Though once deeper, the pool is true to its name in otherwise thirsty Agua Caliente Canyon, through which an alternatingly trickling and terminating creek lightly travels. Bear and mountain lion footprints — not humans’ — are the only footsteps to mark the land.

Upper Caliente Camp itself is mounted on a meadow-topped island in the divide between Agua Caliente Creek and a minor tributary. It’s surprisingly hard to find, but it’s there. From here, the canyon continues up, with another two miles available for further exploration. Each new bend in the canyon hides a new meadow, and each meadow bound by towering rock walls and side canyons leading into the unknown. Those who appreciate the beauty of our local geology will find in Agua Caliente a treasure trove of scenic cliffs and crags. In spring, Agua Caliente Canyon is the quintessence of the season, exploding with vibrant colors and alive with wildlife. Here, arroyo toads bounce fat and happy, not smashed and dead. When night falls on Agua Caliente, it is like being in a stadium with wildlife in the seats and you at the center — all around you ring the almost deafening din of nighttime songs.

Exit the way you came. The final 2.6 miles are all uphill, almost 2,000 feet of ascent. It’s a push, particularly since you have already traveled many miles to get here. Pace yourself, and plan your water accordingly. When you finally peak out at East Camino Cielo again, with the city down below you and the canyon beyond you, you are awarded the unique sensation of having earned a deeper understanding of not just the backcountry, but the mid- and fore-countries leading to it. Even though anyone can see the land from East Camino Cielo, you will now be one of the very few to appreciate the secrets of Upper Caliente and the lands between and beyond.

 

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Night Hiking Dry Lakes Ridge

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Botanists and backpackers alike know Ojai’s Dry Lakes Ridge to be a lovely and unique destination for finding flora or sweeping views a short, steep climb away from Highway 33. Less considered is the ridge’s worth as a night hike destination. Perched high between the Matilija and Sespe drainages, the Dry Lakes Ridge affords nocturnal adventurers solitude and an owl’s eye view of the world from Pine Mountain to Santa Cruz and Anacapa islands, with enough slight navigational challenges to make it more than a mere midnight stroll.

At any time of day, Dry Lakes Ridge is a special place. Sitting atop the zigzagging State Route 33, the mountain ridge hides a noteworthy home for rare plants amidst its otherwise unassuming chaparral flanks. In 1986’s “A Flora of Dry Lakes Ridge,” UCSB botanist David Magney thoroughly researched the ridge’s restricted bands of ponderosa and costal sagebrush plant communities, declaring Dry Lakes a distinctive region for its disjunctive uniqueness and seemingly unaltered population of natives and endemics.

The hike begins at 3,720 feet of elevation with an immediate climb of just under 700 feet in less than half a mile — i.e., very steep. The challenge begins even before the ascent, however, with a little bit of route finding. The Forest Service does not regularly maintain this trail, and it is infrequently used. Travelers have stamped out not one but three or four potential pathways up the hill, of which only one forms an actual trail. Should you continue up the ridge, you will find this to be something of a theme, with one supposed trail misleading you into a scraping fence of chaparral until you find another.

There is no way to go but up, and the shadeless trail would be a brutal one in the full heat of a summer day. At sunset, however, the heart-pumping incline at least counters the plummeting temperatures and the sun’s rapid setting. Watch as headlights thread up the mountainside and the darkening gradients of slopes and sea open up to the far-off islands.

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Finally, the trail meets the cresting ridge at 4,400, and the views open up even more. One can see far into the purple Sespe river valley, glimpsing the sloping rocks around Willett Hot Springs and the far-off San Rafael Peak. Pine Mountain, with its ever-spectacular Reyes and Haddock peaks, looms opposite Dry Lakes Ridge. Down below, Lake Casitas sheds its last light as Ventura illuminates nearby, and the Santa Monica Mountains stand high and hazily at the east end of the horizon. This is a great place to watch the sunset and moonrise.

The trail peaks out at 4,800 feet before it begins its descent into the basins of Dry Lake Ridge. The basins are shallow depressions that are thick with thriving plant communities, formed by accelerated erosion on the ridge due to fault activity. Under a full moon, these cradles of calm seem otherworldly, almost alien, and are somewhat eerily open in the night air.

However, even during the day, the meadows are slightly difficult to navigate due to the encroaching chaparral. The trail isn’t so much one trail as it is a variety of footpaths paralleling an old firebreak, at points converging into a track but seeming to diverge into the brush in others. There are distinctive cuts in the vegetation, but you have to train your eyes. At night, this becomes even more of a task, making a headlamp and/or flashlight essential even under the brightest of moons. Given the sensitive, slow-growing quality of these plant habitats, one ought to be as delicate and dexterous as possible when finding the trail.

The first two Dry Lakes are small seas of sage. The second, punctuated by pines, is particularly scenic, with the Pine Mountain ridgeline rimming the northern views. But it’s the third — located 2.5 miles from the trailhead a couple hundred feet down a slightly steep grade from the first two basins — that makes for the most reasonable place to stop to camp or, if not sleeping, to pause and rest. The almost perfectly round meadow is composed of grass, not sage, and is dotted around its perimeter with ponderosas. An old ice can stove flanks the west side, and a tire swing sways from a tree on its northern side. Here, hiding in a quiet botanic bowl, there is no indication you are near a road.

Until spring, your night hike is bound to be cold; this author’s recent late-November solo overnight dipped to the low 20s. But if you can stand the chill, then all the better, for you will likely be one of the few. The cities buzz thousands of feet below, but up here, it’s just you and the plants, sharing the peaceful light of the moon.

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Walking Below Zero

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The freezing sensation in your nostrils as soon as you step outdoors; your just-showered hair forming its own polar icecap upon your head; your fingers and feet, thickly gloved and socked, beginning to scream in pain. A walk below zero makes your thoughts shelter ever-further inward, cozying up against the hearth of your heart; yet even thinking feels exhausting. A moment drags to a minute, a minute to 20 in the slowing temperament of snow and soft light.

There I was in the forests of Finland, early in January. For weeks, daily temperatures barely rose above the 0°F mark — if at all. On some nights, it got as cold as minus-22°F, and that’s before windchill. The days between barely qualified as such, instead transitioning from sunrise to sunset over five-six hours without a middle point, the light seeming to fall below the horizon almost as soon as it had ascended. Your own inner light and inner energy weaken too, outweighed by the heavy reality of oncoming and ongoing darkness.

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Being an outdoors-lover, experiencing the frigid Finnish lands and atmospheres was a unique and unforgettable experience. The Arteles artist residency that brought me there was themed “silence, awareness, existence” — apt thoughts to carry with you into the quiet surrounding forests. Unlike Americans — for whom wilderness is a regulated freedom contained within discreet segments, cordoned by property lines, and protected by rangers and volunteers — the forests of Finland, covering over 70 percent of the land, belong to the Finns as a people. The Finns believe in jokamiehenoikeus, or Everyman’s Right: the freedom to roam and enjoy the forests recreationally and to use its resources, so long as it does not damage the forest or a person’s property. To them, the forests are a fact and fabric of the people, part of their culture and soul.

For those weeks, it became part of mine as well. The majority of my walks were short ambles through the nearest forest. At subzero temperatures, a short walk is a difficult and draining experience — 30 minutes was the maximum I could endure on one minus-17°F morning. One fellow resident went on a longer walk at similar temperatures and had to be rescued from fatigue; his beard had grown icicles.

 

Even in these relatively short strolls, both the physical and metaphysical intensity of walking intensifies. You become distinctly and even painfully aware of your fingers, toes, ears, extremities that in milder climates convey mere background information. All sensations and thoughts take on an intense physicality. Your focus narrows to the crystalline structures cracking across frozen creek beds, or the way the highest, pale white canopies illuminate like pink torches against the sunset, lest you be overwhelmed by the infinity of patterning splayed out in repeating trees.

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You also get to witness what Southern California never sees, at least not at most elevations: the deep slumber of a winter forest. The forest itself seemed motionless, still, as if time stopped. Besides a few chirping great tits, there were no animals to see, though deer and moose prints covered the forest floor. If you are accustomed to hunt for animal trails in our own grassy backcountry, then the telltale nature of snow here may lend to your understanding of animal routes, as you can trace what trails the four-legged have trampled. Hibernating bears live there, but unseen. Cross-country travel opportunities abounded in the forest. The snow cover was so thick and steady that I could simply walk on top of bushes, and traveling on their backs gives a kind of weightlessness and floating ease.

 

The forest runs into roads and houses at its rims, and on one long and aimless walk, only the low orange glow of homes saved me from uncertain doom in the quickly darkening forest. Walking upon pavement is also an experience transformed at subzero temperatures. You account for every step with the understanding that the further you go, the longer you will be in the cold. Your body prepares to endure for as long as it can but is quick to shut down. You are keenly aware of your weirdness walking in the winter, and equally your insignificance, as cars barrel down the road. But within this you find renewed faith and feeling in the very activity of motion. You become aware of how every step matters, how every one is an effort. You renew your love for the breathing that keeps you alive and warm in your chest. You slow your speed and appreciate the distances you once thought were short and easily overcome. Farmland vistas stretch on as expansively and eloquently as painters’ dreams, sparse white vacancies to the dense and dark forest borders.

Walking at such low temperatures is a humbling experience. Awareness tapers to the most immediate of sensations: the air, the ground, the sounds surrounding and rebounding. You slow to the speed of silence and the soft fall of snow as you meditate on moss peeking through the thaw. You feel the outdoors in ways you’ve never felt it.

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On one of my last days in Finland, I passed through the forest to a frozen lake, and I walked out on the ice, testing for weak parts. Finding a safe firmness, I lay down and felt enrapt: below me a bed of frozen water, above me a sky, frozen gray. A lake that could drown me at other times held me, and I felt cradled in the cold. But rare sensations like these come commonly below zero. In the dead of winter, I found a new appreciation for what it means to be alive.

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